SA health executives see silver lining from pandemic

Brand South Africa's Nation Brand Forum brought together an expert panel to discuss the effects of Covid-19 on the sector and the new opportunities that are emerging.

Although South Africa suffered from the greatest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in Africa, executives and policymakers working in country’s health sector believe there are some silver linings.

Speaking at Brand South Africa’s Nation Brand Forum in September, Stavros Nicolaou, group senior executive at Aspen Pharmacare, said that the biggest lesson learned is that “you cannot depend on the rest of the world for vaccines.”

This should lead to a greater drive to boost local pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity which has already seen significant gains over the Covid-19 period, he said.

Aspen Pharmacare, one of South Africa’s largest drug companies, announced a partnership with global pharma giant Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to produce 700m one-shot vaccines by January 2023.

The confidence placed in Aspen Pharmacare by a leading pharmaceutical company shows that South Africa has a manufacturing sector to be proud of, Nicolaou said.

Out of the 11 countries chosen to produce J&J vaccines worldwide, South Africa was the first country to start producing the vaccines and it currently has the greatest output in the world.

Ryan Noach, CEO of Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest medical insurer, said that “while the pandemic has been challenging, we have seen the public and private sectors come together to create a mass vaccination campaign.”

The executive added that in comparison to other countries, including some European nations, South Africa’s health system was not overwhelmed by the pandemic and this will have boosted the rainbow nation’s international brand.

Innovation in the health sector

The pandemic has also led to innovation in the health sector and a move towards digital systems.

The government created an Electronic Vaccination Data System (EVDS) to simplify and centralise the roll out of vaccines.

This has advanced South Africa’s moves towards data-sharing across all stakeholders in the healthcare value chain, something which remains a challenge in more advanced countries.

“We had procurement challenges but it is significant that we had one of the most efficient vaccine rollouts of any countries with EVDS underpinning it,” said Noach.

Sibongiseni Dhlomo, deputy minister for health, said that the government has been vaccinating around 1m people a week and it aims to vaccinate 70% of the population by the end of the year.

But one of the major problems is vaccine hesitancy, he said, adding that “there are enough vaccines, we just need more arms.”

Covid-19 advances calls for universal healthcare

Another issue in South Africa is universal healthcare.

The Covid-19 pandemic has advanced calls for universal healthcare amid a system that currently discriminates according to financial means.

“Health is a public good,” said the minister. “Unless you move towards universal healthcare you can’t win in terms of health care. We are looking into rolling out universal healthcare across the country by 2026.”

Affordable health insurance is also a problem as regulatory issues and risk force high premiums, leaving millions of people without cover.

Noach from Discovery Health said that the 2006 Medical Schemes Act brought into place regulation that tried to protect the consumer but in reality shrank the space for insurers to offer affordable products.

He added that Discovery Health had lost 14,000 customers who were no longer able to pay for their healthcare over the Covid-19 period.

Around 17% of the population has private insurance which is priced at around $50 per month but the base premium is unaffordable to most South Africans.

This leaves a huge gap in the market for insurers that can find a way to cover low-income customers and still turn a profit.

Malebone Precious Matsoso, former director-general of the National Department of Health, said that the regulatory framework must be addressed to fix the system.

“If you over-regulate you kill innovation, if you under-regulate you expose people to harm,” she said.

This article was produced as part of Brand South Africa’s Nation Brand Forum that took place on 28 September. All editorial content was produced independently from panel discussions that took place at the Forum. For more information visit the Brand South Africa website.